Sociolinguistics in Star Wars: Navigating accents and alienation in a galaxy far, far away … (by Stephen Davis)

The Star Wars film franchise is world-renowned for its fantastic science fiction storytelling, breathtaking special effects, and unparalleled original music. For readers in need of an outline of the episode trajectory, the original trilogy includes Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983); the prequel trilogy consists of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005); the sequel trilogy features Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), as well as two forthcoming films; finally, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) serves to bridge the prequel and original trilogies. Indeed, Star Wars has been celebrated across generations, receiving a myriad of awards and becoming one of the highest grossing film franchises of all time. Yet, for all of the reasons to obsess over this otherworldly saga, language remains at the periphery of interest for many moviegoers.


In this commentary, I will analyze language in Star Wars through a critical sociolinguistic lens with regard to languaging, languages and languagers. Specifically, I will first provide an overview of how language is used in the series; subsequently, I will critically examine various alien languages and the extent to which these are based on human languages; finally, I will explore character diversity and discuss the significance of accents in Star Wars.

 

In order to understand the language practices found in Star Wars, it is important to first consider the lingua franca of this universe. By far and away, the predominant language used throughout the entirety of the series is Galactic Basic, which is spoken by all human characters across a number of planets with negligible regional variation. Galactic Basic is essentially the language of the film’s intended audience: specifically, English, except in translations of the films. Several aliens and droids also speak Galactic Basic, but for those who cannot, the language barrier is mitigated in one of two ways. First and foremost, certain characters are able to understand the utterance of the non-speaker and then respond to the dialogue in such a way that the general message is comprehensible for others; for example, C-3PO translates R2-D2’s droidspeak into Galactic Basic, and Han Solo does the same for Chewbacca’s Shyriiwook. The second solution to the language barrier is subtitling, which occurs far less frequently than translating. In both cases, however, characters employ what Schiffman has termed “mutual passive bilingualism,” inasmuch as they understand one another’s speech but continue to speak their respective languages (Wilce, 1999). Indeed, while certain Star Wars characters demonstrate multilingual comprehension ability, it is quite rare to hear the same character speak multiple languages. Lewis (2016a) makes the following observations: “There is no language humor and not a single multilingual pun. Other than 3-CPO the interpreter, nobody in the films talks about learning or knowing languages. […] The multilingualism of the films is huge, but shallow.” Perhaps the best example of this underdeveloped multilingualism occurs in Episode IV: A New Hope, during Han Solo’s interaction with Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Whereas the cantina contains all of the linguistic diversity of Pennycook and Otsuji’s (2015) metrolingual markets, the following scene demonstrates the mutual passive bilingualism between two discrete languages typical of Star Wars multlingualism:

 

In addition to exemplifying the unique languaging practices in Star Wars, the above scene introduces the second and far more controversial area to be explored in this review: namely, alien languages and the extent to which they are based on human languages. Burtt, sound designer for the original Star Wars trilogy, offers the following explanation for this use of real languages in the series, citing the example of Quechua, a language family native to the Andes region of South America:

Part of my research was to identify interesting real language to use as basis for alien ones. The advantage of using a real language is that it possesses built-in credibility. […] I found that if I relied on my familiarity with English, my imagined “alien” language would just be a reworking of the all-too-familiar phonemes of everyday general American speech. To this end I searched and found several fascinating possibilities. First came Huttese which I needed for Greedo… I heard some recordings of Quechua… There were smacking sounds and clicks not part of common speech or of any of the familiar Romance languages. I collected recordings of Quechua and searched for someone who could speak the language. Out of this research came a linguistics graduate student from Berkeley. Larry [didn’t speak Quechua, but he] could listen to Quechua, and then reproduce a stream of sound that would convince you he was speaking fluently. In fact, it was all double-talk… (Burtt, 2001).

Moreover, Nien Nunb, an alien pilot with two lines in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, reportedly speaks Kikuyu or Haya, two Kenyan languages (Lewis, 2016b). In the same film, the language of the Ewok species is “rendered almost entirely in Tibetan,” and the speech in the scene below is taken directly from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer (Lewis, 2016b). Needless to say, repurposing human languages as alien languages presented an ethical dilemma for many involved in the film series. One such example is Allen Sonnefrank, a Quechua speaker and linguistic anthropology graduate student who was apparently contacted by Star Wars to provide Quechua recordings, but who refused to do so upon learning that the audio would be played backwards in the movie, “considering it a potentially exploitative move best made by one whose first language was Quechua, if at all” (Wilce, 1999). Indeed, that Quechua, Kikuyu, Haya, and Tibetan were sometimes distorted and were not used to convey meaningful content seems to suggest that these languages were never meant to be intelligible to moviegoers; rather, they were used to create social distance between strange characters and the anticipated audience. Therefore, I would argue that this form of linguistic appropriation, regardless of intention, serves to alienate – literally, to make alien – speakers of these languages, rather than honour them. Fortunately, the creators of Star Wars seem to have discontinued this problematic practice in recent films, which I believe present a more culturally responsive model of inclusion.

 

In previous sections of this commentary, I critically analyzed Star Wars languaging and languages. Now, I will examine Star Wars languagers themselves and discuss the significance of their linguistic characteristics. It is quite common, albeit controversial, for films to use divergent accents to create a distinction between heroes and villains. George Lucas reportedly sought to balance American and British accents between good characters and evil characters, an effort that has arguably been maintained throughout the series (Scanlon, 1977). For instance, Jedi such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn both speak with a British accent, as do Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. In her critique of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Williams (1999) offers the following analysis to argue that accents do not indicate the morality of Star Wars characters, but rather their social class:

The Phantom Menace is filled with the hierarchies of accent and class status. The Jedi knights speak in full paragraphs, resonant baritones and crisp British accents. White slaves (like Anakin Skywalker and his mother) and the graceful conquered women of the Naboo speak with the brusque, determined innocence of middle-class Americans.

Furthermore, Williams (1999) criticizes the portrayal of additional accents and speech patterns of junk trader Watto, who speaks in “a gravelly Middle Eastern accent,” and jester Jar Jar Binks, whose “speech is a weird pidgin mush of West African, Caribbean and African-American linguistic styles.” While opinions differ with regard to Watto and Jar Jar, I believe that these examples illustrate a broader theme of tokenism in certain instalments of the Star Wars franchise. Specifically, accents from minority groups were often attributed to minor roles, whereas American and British accents were typical of central characters. Nevertheless, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story presents an important counterexample to this trend. Cassian Andor, the leading male protagonist played by Mexican actor Diego Luna, speaks Galactic Basic with a Hispanic accent. This represents, to the best of my knowledge, the first time a central human character in Star Wars has spoken with an accent that is neither American nor British. Accents, however, are not the only measure by which Star Wars characters are growing more diverse; indeed, the two most recent episodes, Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story both feature women and people of colour as leading protagonists. The extent to which the franchise has progressed from offering tokenistic gestures toward minority groups to placing them at the forefront of the saga enables viewers to see and hear their increasingly diverse communities represented at the heart of the Star Wars story.

 

Throughout the course of the eminent series, Star Wars proves to be a compelling site of study in a number of regards, across dimensions far beyond the narrative, special effects, and music. For reasons pertaining to the unique languaging practices, such as mutual passive bilingualism; the complex, controversial, and potentially exploitative relationship between human languages and alien languages; as well as the diverse accents, speech patterns, and identities of the languagers, I believe that critical sociolinguistics presents an important avenue of research for the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, many of the issues explored throughout this commentary – for instance, the dominance of a lingua franca, the appropriation of minority languages, and the importance of meaningful representation that is both culturally and linguistically diverse – are subjects of significant concern for critical sociolinguists today. It is my hope that, as we navigate language in this galaxy far, far away, we might discover something about our own world in the process.

May the Force be with you!

 

References:

Burtt, B. (2001). Star Wars, Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide. Part II-Behind the          Sounds, Del Rey.

Lewis, M. (2016a, January 24). The Languages of Star Wars (Part 1): A Sociolinguistic Investigation. Retrieved from https://speechevents.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/the-languages-of-star-   wars-a-sociolinguistic-investigation-part-1/

Lewis, M. (2016b, January 24). The Languages of Star Wars (Part 2): Human Languages Used in the Films. Retrieved from https://speechevents.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/the-languages-of-star-wars-part-2-human-languages-used-in-the-films/

Pennycook, Alastair, & Emi Otsuji. (2015). “Morning markets and metrolingual multitasking”, chapter 1 of Metrolingualism: Language in the city (pp. 1-23). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Scanlon, P. (1977). The Force Behind George Lucas. Rolling Stone, 25, 40-48.

Wilce, J. (1999). Linguists in Hollywood. Anthropology News, 40(7), 9-10.

Williams, P. J. (1999). Racial ventriloquism. Nation, 269(1), 9-9.

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3 thoughts on “Sociolinguistics in Star Wars: Navigating accents and alienation in a galaxy far, far away … (by Stephen Davis)

  1. Very well written! I’ve also been appreciative of the increasing attempts at diversity in the two most recent Star Wars films; I was just delighted to (finally!) see a Hispanic lead in Rogue One. I always find it very interesting (and sometimes disappointing) to rewatch childhood favourites with new eyes through a sociolinguistic lens.

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  2. I was riveted! And as a diehard fan of the OTHER long-running space series, I hope a post about languaging and languages in Star TREK is just around the corner…

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  3. This was amazing! I wrote a post a few years ago, imagining a future where the Star Trek Universal Translator is a reality (I don’t think it’s far away). It isn’t an academically rigorous piece at all, but my basic question was to ask what will come of the ‘intercultural respect’ that comes from recognizing that someone has learned your language. Anyway– thanks for this. Great writing!

    https://wordsummit.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/star-trek-vi-will-computers-ever-emulate-the-charm-of-human-language-learners/

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